Ellery Queen and The Secret to Writing a Bestseller Title

This is the first Ellery Queen themed week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers and I thought I would look at the works of Queen as a whole, in particular the titles they used. These days with technology anything and everything can analysed, including it seems book titles and whether or not they will be best sellers. The analyser I am using is the Lulu Title scorer, which judges whether or not a book, based on its title will be a best seller, using attributes which statisticians have identified as being key to the titles of the best sellers from the past 50 years. When it comes to things like this I am usually a little dubious but it seems that the Lulu Title scorer is ‘40% better than random guess-work in guessing whether a particular title had produced a bestseller or not’ and Dr. Atai Winkler says that the tool ‘guessed right in nearly 70% of cases’. Though of course it’s not infallible as there are titles such as The Da Vinci Code, for example, which was a bestseller, yet would have scored low on this tool. So seeing this as a bit of fun I thought I would see how the titles of Queen’s novels fared under the Lulu Title scorer…

Title of Novel Lulu Title Score
The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)

10.2

The French Powder Mystery (1930)

10.2

The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931)

10.2

The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

10.2

The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932)

10.2

The American Gun Mystery (1933)

10.2

The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)

10.2

The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934)

10.2

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

10.2

The Lamp of God (1935)

26.3

Halfway House (1936)

35.9

The Door Between (1937)

10.2

The Devil to Pay (1938)

63.7

The Four of Hearts (1938)

10.2

The Dragon’s Teeth (1939)

26.3

Calamity Town (1942)

69

There was an Old Woman (1943)

26.3

The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

26.3

Ten Days Wonder (1948)

34.8

Cat of Many Tails (1949)

26.3

Double Double (1950)

26.3

The Origin of Evil (1951)

69

The King is Dead (1952)

10.2

The Scarlet Letters (1953)

26.3

The Glass Village (1954)

26.3

Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956)

10.2

The Finishing Stroke (1958)

26.3

Ellery Queen Novels

Answer to that question is, not very well, particularly the formulaic titles of Queen’s earlier works. However having done this analysis (and remembered some of my school day ICT lessons) I think I have picked up on some of the things which according to Lulu make a “bestseller” title:

  • Figurative titles fare better, perhaps because they create more intrigue by their interpretability. (E.g. The Lamp of God (1935), Calamity Town (1942) and The Glass Village (1954)). Scanning the titles of the Queen novels does suggest a change in style, because as the canon progresses, the titles change from being quite literal to much more figurative. I wonder whether this reflects a change in tastes on the part of readers.
  • Including verbs also seems to affect the popularity of a title, which may be because verbs make the title seem more dynamic such as Go Set a Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee.
  • Grammatically incomplete or unconventional phrases also seem to make a title more interesting. Halfway House (1936), for example is composed of two nouns, whilst The Devil to Pay (1938), one of the highest scoring titles, can also be seen as grammatically unusual, as can Calamity Town, which comprises only an adjective and a noun. Perhaps their incompleteness draws our attention and especially if they are figurative titles as well, adds to the overall sense of mystery. This is of course a “problem” with the earlier Queen titles which are consistent in their grammar usage, though I feel there are some readers out there who enjoy their formulaic nature. Additionally, this analysis only looks at the type of words used not what the words actually mean. This does mean that very daft books could be predicted to be best sellers, but which in reality very few sane readers would buy.
  • Including a person or figure in the title also increases your Lulu title score and I wonder whether that is due to the importance of characters in writing and therefore signposting to such in the title hooks readers’ imagination and/or curiosity. (E.g. The Devil to Pay, There was an Old Woman (1943) and The Murderer was a Fox (1945)). I don’t think it has such a significant effect on the Lulu title score as other categories do, as of course Inspector Queen’s Own Case (1956), didn’t reach that high a score.
  • Weirdly also the sentence structure of The _ of _ (E.g. The Origin of Evil (1951)) also helps best seller chances, though for the life of me I’m not entirely sure why, although it does bring to mind the bestseller The Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel.

The top 3 Queen novels, with the highest chance of becoming best sellers, according to this analyser are The Devil to Pay, Calamity Town and The Origin of Evil (which I shall be reviewing in the coming weeks). But would you say these are the best Queen novels? I’m not so sure and a good title doesn’t always mean a good read. One thing this data analyser has brought to my attention is the issue of how important a title is for readers deciding whether or not to buy a book. Are their perhaps other factors involved such as the cover design, author or the blurb? Is it affected by whether you are buying books online or browsing a bookshop? Does it matter less if the author is someone you have enjoyed in the past?

I think for me personally the title is not such an important factor, especially when browsing online, finding that the blurb and/or book review comments, often give me a better indicator of whether or not I will like a book. Moreover, although word play or figurative titles are more interesting to me, I think to dismiss more literal titles, particularly within the genre of Golden Age crime fiction, is a dangerous practice as it leaves the possibility of missing out on some great stories. Moreover, many of the more literal titles created by Ellery Queen were actually best sellers at the time of publication such as The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934); a novel I enjoyed much more than for example, There was an Old Woman, The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935); which I reviewed a couple of days ago, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932), The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) and The French Powder Mystery (1930). In addition according to Frank Luther Mott’s Bestseller list between 1925 and 1935, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery and The Chinese Orange Mystery, were all purchased by a minimum of 1% of Americans at the time. This could be argued to show that a literal title doesn’t make for a bad read.

Browsing in bookshops though when all you can see is the title on the spine, does change this slightly though. Cover design has never really influenced my book buying decisions much, but I do think the author can affect my decisions, as I am much more likely to quickly buy a book by an author I love, than one I do not and I think the title matters less with books written by authors I already like, as I know what quality of writing to expect.

Over to you…

  • How much does the title of a novel affect your book buying habits?
  • Does it matter less if the book is written by someone you already like reading?
  • Does the online or in shop experience have any influence on how much the title matters?

Share your thoughts below…

N. B. I got the information concerning the Queen bestsellers from:

Dover, J. K. (2010). Making the Detective Story American: Biggers, Van Dine and Hammett and the Turning Point of the Genre 1925-1930. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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14 Responses to Ellery Queen and The Secret to Writing a Bestseller Title

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    Interesting titles will get me to look at a book by an author I don’t know. So, they can be useful to generate interest. Titles matter less to me once I know that I enjoy an author’s work. And titles do very little for me in the online book-buying world–I only tend to buy books online that I already know I want (and I do very little of it). To “random shop” for books, I have to be in a real, live bookshop. Browsing with a scroll button looking for serendipitous finds does not work for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I get what you mean as once I like an author I don’t really mind what the title is, in reason of course. If Christie came out with a title called My Love of Baked Beans, I might be a little dubious. At the moment I tend to do more online book shopping than I like, but this is because where I’m at the moment and the lack of decent second hand bookshops where I live. Much prefer the in shop buying experience to buying online though, in the same way I like hard copies of books to kindles.

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      • Bev Hankins says:

        🙂 True–My Love of Baked Beans might not quite get it…even from Christie.

        I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve discovered just by browsing the shelves in a used bookstore (or library). I’d have to say that covers probably get me just as much as titles do. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the cover image. Sometimes it’s color combos or the typeface of the print or just the general “look.” I just don’t get that same kind of experience poking around in an online catalog–but I can see where I’d have to make do with that if I didn’t have decent bookshops at hand. (I’m going to take a moment and count my book blessings….)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I definitely agree with you, as it’s hard to find surprise finds on the internet, in comparison to actual book shops. I think also the cover design can influence me in the sense that it gives me a general feel of what sub genre of crime fiction the novel is from as I tend to veer away from overly violent or graphic crime fiction and book covers can be a helpful way of quickly eliminating these sorts of books.

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  2. Intriguing. Lulu really doesn’t like those nationality mysteries does it? I always thought they were most inviting titles. For myself, a good title might make me pick a book up, or investigate it online, but then it has to do more to make me buy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah Lulu doesn’t like grammatically complete literal titles – though I think these particular Queen novel titles do actually convey a sense of the setting and atmosphere of the novel and I agree that a title is not enough to make me buy a book.

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  3. JJ says:

    Of course, what you need now is the relative sales figures of each of these books, so that we know how accurate the Lulu tool is… 😛

    It’s an interesting one, though: how influential is a title? I personally tend to avoid long-winded titles or ones that sound like they’re trying too hard to be cutesy (of the “The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, Saved the King of Sweden, Broke All the Rules and Disappeared” school), but would happily read anything of that ilk by, say, Paul Halter – though mainly because I wouldn’t believe he really meant it. Outside of that, I’m not really to phased by or interested in titles, probably on account of my experience both ways round – great titles and terrible books (Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, say) and vice versa (Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot is an abysmal title, but a wonderful book).

    I realise that this adds nothing to your discussion, and I apologise for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure whether or not the makers of the tool might have actually looked at the sale figures to assess which books were best sellers in the first place from the past fifty years. Outside of crime fiction I tend to get drawn by quirky titles, though I think they might fall into your trying too hard to be cutesy camp! Some favourites have been The Library of Unrequited Love (which is an excellent monologue novella), The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. Though perhaps on a crime fiction blog I shouldn’t be recommending non crime fiction novels! And I did think your comment contributed to the discussion as I think the main aim of the post was to hear how other readers respond to the issue of the importance of novel titles.

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  4. Pingback: Did Ellery Queen ever escape the Golden Age of Detection? | crossexaminingcrime

  5. First of all, excellent idea for a blog, said from a purely selfish perspective, since the golden age of murder mysteries represents my favorite genre and period (please don’t forget Margery Allingham when you do your analyses, by the way!).

    I checked the list of best-selling titles of all-time. The first on the list of single-volume books (perhaps someone else would like to check for accuracy) is “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens, which Wikipedia says has 200 million sales. Then I inputted that title into the Lulu database. “A Tale of Two Cities” has a 26.3% chance of becoming a best-seller, about the same as my murder mystery set in Ancient Athens that I’m currently working on.

    An interesting little exercise. 🙂 Thanks for writing this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you like my blog and GA crime fiction is my favourite too. I have been doing these more analytical pieces as part of a group called The Tuesday Night Bloggers and each month a different author is picked to write about, Ellery Queen being this month’s author. Hopefully in the coming months Margery Allingham might be selected as she would be a good author to analyse. Good luck with your own murder mystery, Ancient Athens sounds like a good place to set it.

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